Ward Valley Update

Opposition escalates as government pushes nuclear dump

By Tori Woodard

In Fall 1995, the nuclear industry pressured the federal government to break laws and risk contaminating the Colorado River in its rush to bury radioactive waste in Ward Valley. An amendment attached to the Budget Reconciliation Bill in Congress would exempt the proposed nuclear waste dump from all environmental regulations and transfer federal land in Ward Valley to the State of California for immediate construction of the dump. If that amendment fails, a stand- alone bill introduced by Congressman Brian Bilbray (San Diego) would do the same thing.

At the same time, the US Department of the Interior has moved closer to transferring the Ward Valley land via an administrative agreement with the State of California. In May 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promised to transfer the land only if the State of California would conduct further testing and make a binding commitment to limit the amount of plutonium that would go into the dump. Now Deputy Interior Secretary John Garamendi has offered to transfer the land without any binding commitments.

Desert Nuclear Dump Leaks

In late October 1995, the public learned that information concerning leaks at U.S. Ecology's nuclear waste dump in Beatty, Nevada, had not been disclosed to the National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the safety of the proposed Ward Valley dump. Data show that the Beatty dump has already leaked tritium throughout the 360-foot dry zone above the groundwater there. Concentrations of tritium five times the legal drinking water standard were found at the fence that surrounds the Beatty dump site. A control sample two miles from the dump site found no tritium, confirming that the unusually high levels of tritium came from the dump, not from the testing of nuclear weapons at the nearby Nevada Test Site.

U.S. Ecology (which operated the Beatty dump and would operate the Ward Valley dump), US Geological Survey hydrologist Dave Prudic, and the California Department of Health Services (who will oversee the dump) knew of this information for over a year and kept it from the public until researchers found the cover-up.

US Ecology has used the Beatty dump as a model for the proposed Ward Valley dump, since the terrain and amount of precipitation are similar in the two locations. The new findings call into question US Ecology's prediction that it would take up to thousands of years for radionuclides to reach the groundwater under Ward Valley. The Beatty dump has only existed for 30 years, but has already leaked.

Opposition Forces Takes Action

Faced with governmental attempts to force California to host a national nuclear waste dump, opponents escalated their efforts this fall by occupying the land. Environmental groups and Native American tribes have organized large gatherings in Ward Valley, sponsored protest actions in several California cities, established an ongoing vigil on the proposed dump site, and are planning to activate an emergency response network if the land is transferred to California for dump construction.

Over 700 people visited Ward Valley during a week-long encampment in October 1995. Many participants experienced a spiritual connection to the land and renewed their commitment to stop the dump. Returning home after the encampment, people organized protests in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mendocino County, Riverside, and elsewhere. The Santa Barbara protest drew 400 people; two protests in San Francisco drew 200 and 100 people respectively.

During the October encampment, the Alliance of Atomic Veterans erected a large Army tent on the land where US Ecology plans to dig its trenches in Ward Valley. That action inspired people to maintain a continuous presence on the land ever since. The ongoing vigil, called "Nobody's Wasteland," has attracted print and radio coverage.

Native American elders endorse and welcome the ongoing vigil. Elders from the Fort Mojave and Colorado River Indian Tribes met several times with the vigilers to plan a large spiritual gathering in Ward Valley December 1 -- 3, 1995. The Tribes invite everyone, Indian and non-Indian, to join them in the occupation of the site. The on-going vigil is legal so long as the land is administered by the Interior Department. Vigilers are allowed to camp there for a total of 14 out of 28 days.

Emergency Response Network

Opponents of the dump have also set up an Emergency Response Network. Led by the Fort Mojave Tribe, members of the Ward Valley Coalition will activate the ern if they learn that either Congress or the Interior Department has acted to transfer Ward Valley land to California for dump construction. At that time, people on the ern phone tree will be given a suggested date for a mass action in Ward Valley to support the on-site vigil. Dump opponents have vowed to wage nonviolent resistance.

How To Get Involved

It is important to keep pressuring Congressional representatives, Secretary Babbitt, and President Clinton not to transfer Ward Valley land to California for a dump. To stay up-to-date on the best targets for public pressure, call (415)752-8678 or (619)326-6267.

The ongoing vigil in Ward Valley needs your financial, material, and moral support, as well as your presence. To comply with government regulations, vigilers must rotate every 14 days; individuals and small groups are needed to replace those who must rotate out. To get involved or send a donation, contact the new office of the Ward Valley Coalition and Nobody's Wasteland at 107 "F" Street, Needles CA 92363. (619)326-6267. Fax: (619)326-6268.

To be sure that you are in the Emergency Response Network phone tree, leave your name, address and phone number at (415)868-2146 or (619)326-6267. People who come to Ward Valley this winter should bring warm clothes, rain gear, a sleeping bag, a tent, food, water, utensils, and friends. Don't bring drugs, alcohol, weapons, or pets. Post-update update: at press time, Terrain learned that the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has voted to oppose the Ward Valley nuclear waste dump. Federal officials claim the vote will have no effect on their plans to nuke the desert.

NOTE: There have been changes in the status of Ward Valley since this update. Please see the Ward Valley Diary for more: